Monday, February 15, 2010

Raymond Carver, Come Back!

Raymond Carver was just one of those guys, I suppose. If you read this blog with some frequency, you know I'm not big into "realism" or whatever writing that is concerned with the kinds of everyday occurrences we all share and can basically relate to. Some of these occurrences are a little more F*%^ed up than others, but we can imagine a world in which they happen, sadly. I don't for the most part concern myself with that genre. However, one of them who wrote it best and whom I will make an exception for is Raymond Carver.

I remember the first Raymond Carver story I ever read. I read it for a lit criticism class I took my sophomore year of college. It was called, simply, "A Small, Good Thing." I was really fascinated by it. I wasn't a literary-minded person at the time -- actually I was just coming off the hangover of college athletics and, to that extent, being a "jock" more or less. But I intuited in that crude, inchoate undergraduate way of English majoring undergrads (who could be gotten to read for an assignment) that there was something interesting about what I was reading. It was as much for what it wasn't saying as it was for what it did.

That's the point at which Carver took the baton from Hemingway and ran powerful fast with it -- that same uncanny sense of the things we don't say but non-verbally they say more than anything else can. They without words express the dominance of a certain person or faction in a discussion, or the absurdity of a fight that can't be understood by the fighters embroiled, or just what the hell is going on. And what the hell is going on? Wickedness, for one thing. People do commit evil against one another.

"Tell the Women We're Going" is one such story in Carver's collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." It tells the tale of two boys who grow to be men, who grow dissatisfied with the hum-drum of their married lives, but who find they don't know how to release this pent-up frustration. On an afternoon respite from their families they go to town and discover two young women, who they proceed to make advances towards. The women seem coquettish but also uninterested, much too young for the older men. But the men refuse this rejection, in particular Jerry, and pursue the women to a climactic and somewhat inevitable feeling end. The men were never going to get what they wanted, or ostensibly what they wanted, so they took something else.

There's also an abbreviated version of "A Small, Good Thing" entitled "The Bath." The dynamic changes with pith in "The Bath" and the lack of the same apotheosis that occurs in "A Small, Good Thing" makes it read more like a horror story for the main characters involved, to really enjoyable effect. I liked it for its difference. "So Much Water So Close to Home" is another that proves rending emotionally, and again, the most amazing thing is how Carver made use of the negative spaces, seeing something that was not there and allowing that to be put on display.

So come back, Raymond Carver, because nobody did any of that like you, not since Hemingway, and you did it differently, with an even keener eye for the human.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The DeLillo Slice of "Americana"

I'm not getting better at writing headlines to these posts, and for that I apologize. I apologize a great deal and will try to improve, if I am able. The DeLillo lovefest (like that of my 19th century Russian author lovefest) continues full bore with, as you might already have gleaned, "Americana," DeLillo's first novel -- the back cover emphasizes this to me, so that I know it is where it all started. And with a guy with the writing chops of Don DeLillo it did need start somewhere -- for instance, DeLillo wrote in an article I read from last summer's Granta of his relationship with streetwise and canonical Chicagoan author Nelson Algren, when he (DeLillo) was just starting out. Their relationship was one of mentor and student, where the torch isn't literally passed (so few literal torch passing ceremonies in our time) but it's understood that 1) DeLillo isn't going to suck, as writers go, not hardly and 2) Nelson Algren is not a d-bag who thought himself too good to be a mentor to young Don DeLillo.

Which, relationships like these are always interesting to me, because 1) they're so Hollywood movie-like but in the real, attainable way of the Advertiser's "American Dream" that DeLillo skillfully hashes out in "Americana" and 2) Don't you see George Saunders? Don't you see that there's a guy out here, blogging, and just waiting to be mentored the hell out of, like by a voice with a distinct Sir Sean Connery timbre, which maybe you might work on developing / honing?! That's a lot to think about, a lot of real good to consider, Mr. Saunders.

Moving onward . . .

The America of "Americana" is bored and boring -- and yet in the most paradoxically stimulating ways. Joshua Ferris was so taken (for whatever his reason) with "Americana's" opening line that he used it for the title of his debut novel, "Then We Came to the End." And 100% backing Ferris' decision / appreciation, it is a perfect, loaded and typifying start to the anemia that follows, which the line in full is, "Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year." What a vitiating and ballsy way to begin a story, no? To inherently temper expectations of the story therein, setting the tone of malaise unmistakably at the outset, that's the kind of categoric sentiment, written simply and precisely, that has instilled greatly in me my deep admiration for DeLillo and his way with words.

Conceptually, DeLillo is really stellar in this one, really shows that he was destined to be among the best of the best from my perspective. He portrays an America made familiar to me by "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- but where the tone of Ken Kesey's novel was playful for the most part, "Americana" can be said to articulate a tableau principally awash in gray and dour. It turns American ideals on their head, satirizing in effervescent and sardonic bursts the American Dream mythos. The story is told from the vantage of David Bell who is a young television network executive. What's interesting (and not totally uncommon to DeLillo characters) is that he never seems to fall on either side of the a big postmodern conundrum, it being that technology has a nefarious effect for all the good it debatably may do or that profitability is viability and nothing that is profitable could ever be construed as categorically "bad." Instead, he wavers somewhere in the midst of all of this and observes, a sycophant by some measure at the novel's outset who slowly turns away, attempting to create something uniquely his own with the considerable gifts he appears to possess.

Bell's observations frequently point out the importance of conformity, an unspoken mandate that people look and act alike. He describes this pattern of uniformity in wryly humorous terms at times, for example, "At work I dressed in the established manner, which, granted, was not without a touch of color, the establishment having learned that every color was essentially gray as long as everyone is wearing it." Another good one is, ". . . you come to distrust those superiors who encouraged independent thinking. When you gave it to them, they returned it in the form of terror, for they knew that ideas, only that, could hasten their obsolescence."

Things would probably go on like this, with Bell observing and being more or less indifferent, if it were Joseph Heller's really good novel "Something Happened" in which so little remarkable did happen to Bob Slocum, that story's protagonist. But David Bell has an epiphany, as characters will. It's almost so uninteresting as epiphanies go that it seems uniquely suited to describing the intractable malaise that defines Bell's situation. He's stuck in a world that makes ready implementation of an Orwellian-sounding term, "graytalk," which Bell himself coined and defines as, ". . . not what something meant and often not its opposite."

Bell's epiphany occurs when observes a woman trimming hedges from his perch behind the window of a friend's grandmother's cottage. All of this meaning, right or wrong, I construed to be intentionally dull and not fulfilling, as not so much for the fact that the act itself is so simple as that Bell seems like a man who loves the idea of breaking away from the tedium of his existence but knows not how to earnestly approach the task, so he latches on to something that he for a flicker of an instance can see in a new light, and that in turn becomes the genesis of his project to get to the marrow of the American lifestyle, to use expressions like "cut to the quick" and mean them. On page 349 of my Penguin Book edition, he says the following, nearing the culmination of his project:

. . . that what I was engaged in was merely a literary venture, an attempt to find pattern and motive, to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation's soul. To formulate. To seek links. But the wind burned across the creekbeds, barely moving the soil, and there was nothing to announce to myself in the way of historic revelation. Even now, writing this, I can impart little of what I saw.
In fact the only evidence we're given that Bell has made a break from his previous life is, though fairly compelling, somewhat standard and predictable as well -- he leaves his employ without making his intentions to do so clear, just abandons it, abandons his last assignment, which was to film the Navajo Indians at one of their largest settlements in Arizona, a television program called "The Navajo Project." But word is that there is no way it will succeed, that the premise doesn't easily jibe with attracting viewers. He half-heartedly uses platitudinous lines to describe the subjects, saying, "The Indians don't want pity . . . They want dignity." All in all, the enterprise seems doomed to suffer from a lack of interest by all who are organizing it, Bell very much included. So he runs away, and he starts filming abstractions. Slice of life shots by a faux-artist. None of his "film" succeeds in the way he'd hoped, as the block quote above states fairly concretely, whether there is even an existent method of evaluating how something like that could be described as succeeding.

And in the end, Bell finds himself set on a path homeward bound, preparing to take his flight back to New York City, with a present for his ex-wife in tow. The implication being very heavy that he will attempt to resume his life and, if not the exact same employ, then a job in the field somewhere. His good looks, which he is always evaluating his image in a mirror -- in the third person, and his acumen will save him well once again, no doubt.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Poetry No License to Print Money

When I was reading Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of Poets" I kept thinking to myself: Geez, is there a more frequently dismissed / considered irrelevant creative discipline than that of writing poetry? And so, because there categorically isn't one, is poetry not the perfect sort of interest for a character wading haphazardly through the tough financial waters of contemporary America? And that's why Jess Walter's created more than just a gimmick -- he has the right kind of perception to point out the hypocrisy and downright assholery that have defined our economic woes, both large and small.

For what I'm about, for my money, for the cliches and truisms I can abide, Walter is among the best of contemporary writers at discerning the facts of the matter, bringing to light little truths that anyone can understand but are no less hilarious and poignant for that fact.

He's like Vonnegut-light, not as polarizing and not a curmudgeon. Much of the humor to be found in "The Financial Lives of Poets" springs from the roots and stem of understandably righteous indignation. Every moderate, middle income, slightly-left-of-center American male should find in Matt Prior, the novel's protagonist, a guy they can relate to, a man who has made his own mistakes but has suffered from the very apparent failure of the system just as profoundly, if not more so. The system made the claim that it would be fair, that markets pick the creme-de-la-creme and, at least, don't screw you over as long as you're trying your best. But corporations look out for their own interests and politicians lie and look out for corporations.

Still, don't ignore your own role. There's a need for temperance in everything, not rash judgment. Matt Prior is the kind of intelligent middle American who understands this, and as a result his frustration with the system comes off much more even-handed than it might otherwise, if he sounded like the angry proletariat who's only aware of his own circumstances, who never stops to consider how others are equally or even more affected by calamity than he's been. Prior's ability to see this is one of his most important characteristics, because it's not flowery, not romantic. Walter seems to ask you to empathize with drug dealers, an asshole cop, a cuckolding lumber salesman, and in one of my favorite scenes, he does so by crafting a tender moment between a gangly father who exhibits the signs of meth addiction and his young son. In short, Prior is confronted by "others" and, in a believably honest way, sees how far upon his high horse he'd managed to climb before his fall.

It might be that novels are better suited to capturing the "zeitgeist" than movies, in my opinion, because they are afforded (expected to compel) a much deeper level of intimacy with the characters -- you find yourself inhabiting Prior's yearning for hope of a better tomorrow and the bumps and vicissitudes that hinder and stymie this object. You find you can relate to his feeling as clueless as he demonstrably is at times, as totally and completely left out of the loop. And this to me is what makes "The Financial Lives of the Poets" a success, ultimately, it isn't playing games or expecting you to care because you simply should, it inspires something beyond what, say, Reitman's "Up in the Air" attempted and, as I've said, failed to achieve; it manages to maintain the quirky, sardonic level of humor inherent to the subject of home foreclosure, marriages failing and continual layoffs while never losing touch with the humanity of the individuals, keeping them tactile and interesting and avoiding the opportunity to create caricatures who tug at our heartstrings.